The UK government is planning to reduce the amount it spends on foreign aid [Ref: UK Government]. Prior to the decision, the foreign aid budget stood at 0.7% of gross national income (GNI), the amount targeted by the UN [Ref: United Nations]. Following the announcement, including news that there would be cuts to aid sent to countries struggling with widespread hunger, such as Yemen, South Sudan, and Somalia, a group of charities wrote to the prime minister urging a rethink, warning that ‘history will not judge this nation kindly if the government chooses to … destroy the UK’s global reputation as a country that steps up to help those most in need’ [Ref: BBC]. The plans have been defended by government officials as a necessary decision in light of ‘the seismic impact of the pandemic on the UK economy’ and that it has spent ‘more than £10 billion this year’ on good causes around the world [Ref: BBC].
The level of foreign aid has long been a controversial topic in British politics. For many, foreign aid is a moral imperative arising from the UK’s position as a rich country and its moral duties to help those worse off [Ref: Archbishop of Canterbury] – a duty that is doubly serious given the UK’s history of colonial exploitation and military intervention [Ref: Guardian]. In addition, many insist that foreign aid is a key source of ‘soft power’ for the UK and a way to ensure its international reputation and spread its values [Ref: The Conversation]. Nonetheless, others insist that ‘charity always begins at home’ [Ref: Express] and it is unacceptable that the UK spends money on relieving poverty abroad while homelessness and poverty exists in the UK [Ref: Guardian]. Likewise, they note that much foreign aid is given to relatively wealthy global economic powerhouses such as India and China [Ref: The Week]. In a time of economic crisis, such dubious expenses are said to be increasingly unaffordable.
THE UK AND FOREIGN AID
Since 1970, the UN has urged donor countries to spend 0.7% of national income on foreign aid. The UK, despite signing up to this commitment in 1974, only started meeting the commitment in 2013 and it became a legally binding target in 2015 [Ref: House of Commons Library]. In 2017, the UK was the only country in the G7 to meet the target [Ref: The Times]. The government now says it will temporarily target 0.5% of GNP for foreign aid [Ref: UK Government]. Foreign aid is spent on a variety of projects. Humanitarian aid or ‘crisis relief’ (dealing with famine, for example) represents only 15% of the UK’s spend. The rest is focused on ‘strategic’ aid with a longer-term focus, such as vaccinating children, funding education, and health campaigns [Ref: The Week].
However, recent evidence shows that large amounts – as much as one sixth of foreign aid – is captured by elites in recipient countries, either diverted into tax havens [Ref: World Bank] or spent on real estate and luxury goods [Ref: Forbes]. Nonetheless, few would deny that foreign aid projects have good intentions and often produce successful outcomes, such as the UK’s 10-year programme of direct cash transfers to families with malnourished children in Kenya, a project so successful it has been taken over directly by the Kenyan government [Ref: Global Citizen]. Despite this, one insider account of the aid industry suggests many involved are ‘clueless at best, downright racist at worst’, and notes how much of the work is badly organised and conducted by foreign ‘experts’ who have no idea of local context and culture [Ref: NYT].
THE CASE FOR AID
The arguments for retaining or increasing the amount of foreign aid the UK gives rest predominantly on the moral imperative of relieving suffering, whether by ending hunger, stopping violence (especially against women and girls), or improving health [Ref: Guardian]. Oxfam warned in March 2021 that reducing the foreign aid budget would result in ‘tens of thousands of lives’ lost [Ref: Sky News]. More specifically, the UK’s Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health pointed to research showing that ‘a 1% increase in health aid reduces infant deaths by 2.6%’ [Ref: RCPCH]. What’s more, simple programmes such as direct cash transfers or food vouchers can reduce hunger and starvation, a project for which the World Food Programme won the Nobel Peace Prize [Ref: World Food Programme]. In addition, cuts to the aid budget will mean ‘supporting about half a million fewer girls through education a year’ [Ref: Guardian]. Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown echoed such calls, insisting on the moral imperative for not just maintaining but boosting aid in a ‘Marshall Plan for Africa’ [Ref: Guardian].
While most emphasise the moral necessity of a large foreign-aid budget, many commentators also draw attention to the practical benefits for the UK as well. In the first case, ‘the UK could help to develop emerging markets, and that investment allowed them to reap the financial rewards of close trading links with developing nations’ [Ref: The Conversation]. This, according to Joe Cerrell of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, means aid is ‘an investment in our shared security and prosperity’ [Ref: City AM]. In addition, foreign aid is seen as a way of rebuilding ‘new, friendly relationships’ with former colonies who ‘didn’t have the most positive view’ of the UK, as well as ensuring that the UK ‘maintains a position of international power post Brexit’ [Ref: The Conversation].
What’s more, many question the assumption that the UK can’t afford to continue with the 0.7% target, even with the economic disruption caused by the pandemic. With borrowing costs low the UK has plenty of budgetary headroom, and the target, being a percentage of GDP, means the actual amount of aid rises and falls with the UK’s economic prospects [Ref: Guardian].
THE CASE AGAINST AID
The polling agency YouGov records that two thirds of Britons, and majorities from supporters of all major political parties, support cutting the budget [Ref: YouGov] and has long topped their tracker of issues the public think the government spends too much money on [Ref: YouGov]. But the argument against foreign aid is not just a question of affordability. The author Kenan Malik argues that not only does foreign aid ‘promote British trade and political interests’, it often comes in the forms of crippling loans, or, as in the case of EU aid, is tied to ‘African nations curbing immigration to Europe’ [Ref: Guardian].
Furthermore, many of those in developing countries question the assumptions and consequences of aid. As Degan Ali, the director of the aid NGO Adeso, noted, ‘foreign aid has always been a part of a Western-run global system that perpetuates patterns of inequality and poverty’ [Ref: BBC]. Furthermore, this concern is becoming more relevant as Western powers compete with China in the new ‘scramble for Africa’. Nana Afadzinu of the West African Civil Society Institute argues that Africans need to be ‘bold enough to take a stance against Western power and influence’ to avoid being ‘pawns in the hands of these different global powers’ [Ref: BBC]. One overview even questions basing aid on the project of developing ‘states in the Western image’ and suggests we need to move ‘beyond aid’ to something else [Ref: LSE Blogs].
Instead of aid, many argue we should focus on removing the barriers developing countries face to economic development. As one commentator notes, ‘Global trade, not development aid, has pulled one million people out of extreme poverty over the past 20 years, allowing us to reach so many of the millennium development goals’ [Ref: Spectator]. Such policies, and supporting institutions of the free market, are what is needed to address the ‘cycle of corruption and beggary’ left behind by aid [Ref: Financial Times]. It was for this reason that one of the headline policies of the now-disbanded Brexit Party was to slash the foreign-aid budget, a policy which then party leader Nigel Farage insisted would allow the UK to ‘do more to help Africa’ by both focusing money on genuinely effective policies and allow the UK to increase trade with them [Ref: Express].
DOUBLE STANDARDS OR DOING GOOD?
One of the major criticisms of foreign aid is that it is a cover for promoting the values and influence of Western countries. As one commentator notes, there is an uncomfortable overtone of population control to Western aid projects. In the case of the UN programme Thriving Together, ‘to the delight of climate change enthusiasts, international aid was being spent’ on ensuring ‘young women in African countries … wouldn’t populate the world any further’ [Ref: Spiked].
Nonetheless, many insist that even though ‘the UK peddles a cynical colonialism and calls it aid’, foreign aid should be reformed and not scrapped, focusing on ‘moral purpose’ and ‘building a civic network of communities to solve their own problems’ [Ref: Guardian]. Others respond by insisting that the aid target should be scrapped entirely, because it is a ‘a stupid, misconceived and outdated idea, which smacks of arrogant neo-colonialism and does more harm than good in poorer parts of the planet’ [Ref: The I]. Rather than handouts, this commentator argues the UK should stop propping up dictators, stop the flow of illicit money, and ‘perhaps even stop promoting disastrous lockdowns for poor nations with young populations’.
The morality of foreign aid has implications beyond simply charitable work overseas. For those in favour of international aid spending, the UK simply has an unavoidable moral obligation to help those in greater need. Critics of aid question whether it ever fulfils its aims, and argue it often locks in a cycle of dependency on developed countries. This is not a debate just about what level to put a target, but what are the rights and responsibilities of sovereign states, how international relations should be conducted, and how we should address the stark international inequalities in wealth, health and opportunities. How much should the UK spend on foreign aid?
Stop crying crocodile tears for foreign aid
Ella Whelan Spiked 27 November 2020
The international aid target smacks of arrogant neo-colonialism — Rishi Sunak should remove it, not cut it
Ian Birrell The I News 22 November 2020
As a system, foreign aid is a fraud and does nothing for inequality
Kenan Malik Guardian 2 September 2018
Trade not aid: spending more doesn’t mean we care more
Gilbert Greenall Spectator 5 December 2020
Foreign aid isn’t charity, it’s an investment in our own prosperity
Joe Cerrell City AM 15 December 2020
Cuts to UK foreign aid budget are shortsighted and could damage British interests
Victoria Honeyman The Conversation 25 November 2020
Cutting UK overseas aid in the name of Covid fiscal prudence is pure nonsense
Larry Elliot The Guardian 29 November 2020
Rishi Sunak is paying Covid bills off the backs of the poor. It shames our country
Gordon Brown Guardian 3 Feb 2021
The UK peddles a cynical colonialism and calls it aid
Zoe Williams Guardian 23 July 2017
Why China – with its massive economy – receives £71m a year in UK foreign aid
The Week 23 July 2020
Corrupt Elites Siphon Aid Money Intended for the world’s poorest
Ollie Williams Forbes 20 February 2020
How to Help Endangered and Impoverished Peoples: Review of An Insider’s Guide To Changing the World by Séverine Autesserre
Atossa Araxia Abrahamian New York Times 2 March 2021
More military spending won’t keep Britain safe – but boosting overseas aid could
Mary Kaldor Guardian 26 November 2020
As a doctor in Sudan, let me tell you: foreign aid saves lives
Tom Catena Guardian 28 May 2017
International aid saves 700 million lives but gains at risk: report
Kate Kelland Reuters 14 October 2018
Cutting foreign aid will put girls at risk
Caroline Nokes The Guardian 27 December 2020